Ellen McIlwaine makes no bones about her roots: "If you know Ray Charles, you can tell where I got everything I know. It's a little hard to see because I'm a different color and a different sex."
Some of it is easy to see -- but if the roots of this Atlanta singer, who will be at the Cellar Door through tonight, are in the music of Ray Charles, her art branches out on its own in many directions. One minute. she may be doing a quick parody of Joan Baez in her Olde English phase, and the next belting out a lusty, liberated blues with an accompaniment on her own quitar that sounds like a whole band. Then she goes to the piano for a haunting ballad of her own composition, where the blues merge into other American traditions: "Oh yes, I love you, but I'll be damned before I say/All those words that it would take for you to stay."
The warm-up group was George McWhirter and the Horn Band -- a bit rough-edged in their first set last night but strong, clean and showing considerable potential. Jim McWhirter played very impressively on keyboards, but the stand-out performer was Savoy Beard on tenor sax. The best of the five pieces played by this group was "Bumper to Bumper," composed by its guitarist, Phil Blum.